After another questionable law enforcement incident, the national dialogue has disappointingly centered on sensationalized riots instead of on how to address the root causes of poor relations between minorities and the police.
Baltimore, after the still-unexplained death of Freddie Gray, is the latest national flashpoint in the recent spate of high-profile incidents of police mistreatment of minorities. As a Maryland native who still has many friends who live, work, or study in the city, seeing a state of emergency declared and the National Guard called in to deal with riots has been particularly disheartening.
More disheartening has been the rush to simplistic moralizing pronouncements ("hot takes," in the current parlance) that focus on the easy-to-condemn rioters. As with opinions on Ferguson last year, the bulk of the dialogue on Freddie Gray addresses the small faction of criminals that looted a handful of stores. But the folks snarking about Baltimore rioters for their counter-productive behavior miss the point entirely. No one serious is advocating that burning down a corner store is constructive. Yet, perversely, it's once again taken destruction of property -- and not the loss of actual human (black) lives -- to get Americans to pay attention to the plight of struggling minority communities.
What we've got now is a divisive distraction to argue over. One camp has the ammunition they need to discredit valid peaceful protests, shakes their head at pictures of broken store windows, and expresses grim satisfaction at looters getting their comeuppance. The other side rushes to counter that storyline with examples of white looters, black residents cleaning up, and (validly) complains about the disparity in style of media coverage.
Yet while all day long in my office hallways the TVs blared CNN's overhead crowd shots and looped footage of a burning CVS, the real problem is obscured. All of us are guilty of a collective moral failure in neglecting the myriad long-standing problems in Baltimore, Ferguson, and hundreds of other similar communities. While the specifics vary, they often include a shortfall of quality education and job opportunities, a surfeit of drug addiction and gang violence, and usually an antagonistic relationship with police forces that haven't invested in developing the communities they patrol.
Last fall, the Baltimore Sun reported -- in a story that did not trigger nationwide outrage -- that the city of Baltimore paid out $5.7 million to victims of police brutality lawsuits since 2011. (Of note to taxpayers: the city had to spend another $5.8 million in legal fees for its defense.) In under four years over 100 men and women of all ages won court cases or settlements against the city. That number is even more sobering considering it only accounts for victims that had the resources and documented evidence necessary to win a legal challenge. It's a shame that a report like this, which perfectly encapsulates the extent to which the local police's relationship with the community has been compromised, isn't what prompts wall-to-wall media coverage and stinging social media posts.
Rioters need to be prosecuted, and bad cops need to be punished. Most protesters are peaceful and most cops aren't trying to be malicious. Surely that should be obvious to all by now. But after Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, et al., we've unfortunately been through this cycle too many times, It's time to move past the same old reductive coverage and start addressing the issues at hand on a substantive basis.